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8 ways Twitter’s longer tweets will help journalists

Last week Twitter unleashed the floodgates on 280-character tweets, rolling the feature out to everyone just over a month after testing the feature with select users. While the change may have some of the social media giant’s fans lamenting the watering-down of the platform, the change will have several benefits for journalists.

While good journalism and a good tweet generally have conciseness in common, Twitter’s 140-character limit created new challenges for accurately tweeting news items. Here are just a few benefits journalists start seeing now that we have a little more room to breathe.

This one seems like the first and most obvious benefit. It’s hard to give accurate information in 140-characters. Crafting an accurate tweet is similar to trying to craft an accurate headline. That difficulty is one reason why newspapers sometimes use subheads to help clarify or bring accuracy to a headline. On Twitter, you only have 140-characters and if you can’t fully explain it, you  are left with the options to send a followup tweet, choose not to tweet the information for fear of sending out an inaccurate message, or cringe and send something that you know may be misinterpreted.

For complex or more nuanced stories, many journalists send an initial tweet followed by several followup tweets. Expanding the character limit will cut down on this and allow reporters to report more information on breaking stories in more logical chunks of information. Followup tweets often get missed or overlooked due to the fact that they are the second or third in a series. Doubling the length of a tweet will make it less likely your audience will miss important information because it was given as part of a series of tweets.

One of the chief complaints I hear from journalists on Twitter is that they have a great quote from a source that they want to share on Twitter, but they can’t because — while it was a dynamite quote — the source didn’t keep it to 140-characters of Twitter goodness. While we will all mangle our own words to fit something into 140-characters, we’re not going to misquote a source to fit it in, so a lot of good quotes don’t get shared.

AP Style has long told us not to abbreviate anything that doesn’t need to be abbreviated. Twitter style, on the other hand, demands we abbreviate in ways we aren’t even comfortable with. Every time we have to replace for with 4 or to with 2, a journalist dies a little on the inside. In fact, for most of us, 280 is great, but we would be happy with 148, just enough to get some of those pesky abbreviations out of the way.

Twitter has been great for reporters covering live events. It is fast and efficient and it allows reporters to get the details of a story out to the public faster than they can set up a camera or publish to a website. However, having to craft a perfect 140-character summary of a developing story takes time away from covering the story. The increase allows reporters to spend more time reporting and less time composing and crafting the tweet itself.

280 characters isn’t a lot, but it is a lot more. It is enough space to allow journalists to tell the story instead of just summarize it. Obviously, we won’t always be able to tell the whole story in one tweet, but it is going to be a shift in how reporting is handled over Twitter, and I believe that shift will be a win for journalism. One of Twitter’s biggest problems right now is lack of context. The new tweet length allows better context without becoming a blogging platform.

Many news organizations have found that the best way to avoid Twitter confusion, is to simply tweet the headline. This strategy is bolstered by New York Times research showing that tweets with just the headline get more clicks, but a change to Twitter’s rules means we need to change our tactics. Facebook reports that longer posts from news organizations get more clicks. While important stories, should probably still be tweeted with the headline only, 280 characters will allow us to use quotes or descriptions along with the URL instead of just the headline.

The reason Twitter is thinking about and ultimately will decide to increase the character limit is that the social media company has always had a problem with retention. One reason users sign up, stay a day, and never use their accounts again is because 140-characters is a hard sell. Twitter is hoping that more people will use the platform and stick around if they have more space to work with. This is the biggest benefit to journalists. Right now, Twitter is kind of an echo chamber where journalists, news junkies and politicians talk to each other. If this change catches on and works the way Twitter hopes, it will expand the reach of any news organization that uses twitter.

One word of caution though. Just because you can do something, doesn’t mean you should. Good journalism should be concise, so if you can say it in 140-characters and say it well and accurately, you should still try to keep your tweets as concise as possible.

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